Thinking Aloud: “Foundation”

Oct. 21,  2014 by Darius 

I recently finished Foundation by Isaac Asimov.  Published in 1951, Foundation remains a classic of the science fiction genre.

Foundation is set in what is presumably the future.  The entire galaxy is inhabited by humans, and the whole galaxy is under the control of the Galactic Empire.  It is a golden age of peace, prosperity, and technology.  But although most people are unaware of it, the Galactic Empire is crumbling.  One man, Hari Seldon, has invented a new science, dubbed psychohistory, that allows him to predict the future by applying probabilistic theories to human behavior.  Seldon sees the upcoming fall of the Empire and brings a group of scientists and thinkers to the edge of the galaxy to preserve what they can of human knowledge through the dark ages to come and to jump-start the rebirth of civilization.  Foundation is essentially the story of this colony as it attempts to survive and fulfill its mission over the generations.

When Asimov published Foundation, psychohistory was science fiction.  Today, though, it is closer to reality, thanks to Big Data.  Right now, Big Data is primarily used by companies like Google to target advertising, but is it really such a big step to be able to predict not just purchasing decisions but political and other behaviors for a society as a whole?  Perhaps not.

Asimov, though prescient in some aspects, was also quite blind in others.  One of the most obvious is his failure to see women as major players.  The world of Foundation is absolutely and unequivocally dominated by cigar-smoking men; the only woman to play any sort of role is the shrewish wife of a planetary leader.  While unfortunate in this regard, novels always reflect the world in which they were written, and Asimov’s world in the early 1950s was no doubt dominated by cigar-smoking men with women as bit players.

That said, if you enjoy science fiction or even an exploration of how a society can leverage its influence, you should read Foundation.

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